Every memorable speculative fiction story has a world we wish we could live in – from Earthsea to Middle Earth, from the USS Enterprise to Panem. The geography of your secondary world is key, but the culture and the way it influences your characters is even more important.
This guide focuses on the nitty gritty of the influence of culture, values, and hegemony on your societies, people, places, and plot. I encourage you to have a notebook and pen ready, ’cause I’m gonna make you think.
In most stories, your Protagonist wants something – to change a rule in the government, to avenge a death of a loved one, to hook up with the cutie from band practice, to dispel a witch’s curse – and your Antagonist usually wants something that is in direct opposition of the Protagonists’ want. And if there’s no Antagonist (be it a person or society), then there’s something else standing in the Protagonist’s way.
From those opposing wants come the Narrative Conflict. And from Narrative Conflict comes plot.
In generally, there are seven kinds of Narrative Conflict. When deciding what the conflict of your story is going to be – that is, what is going to drive the plot – the strongest stories often feature multiple kinds of conflict, which has the Protagonist in opposition not only with a specific Antagonist, but also usually with some internalized pressure, and some societal issue.
I hope these are helpful in your quest to create a complex and realistic set of conflicts for your protagonist to overcome or succumb to. Best of luck!
Person vs. Self
This is a story about someone struggling with something within themselves – either genetic, or cultural and internalized – which gets in the way of something they want, or a desire.
This is a story about someone struggling with truths, beliefs, customs and taboos imparted to and internalized by the protagonist by an outside organization, such as a church/religion, school system, military complex, etc.
May focus on topics/issues around:
-the ability to declare oneself a person and believing it / not being recognized as a person under the law
-the truth of one’s own gender and/ or sex
-Struggling to overcome internalized prejudices, fears, and ‘truths’ of a state propaganda
Example: “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
Person vs. Machine/Technology
This is a story about someone struggling with their personal relationship with technology, or is a piece of technology themselves struggling with their own personhood.
May focus on topics/issues around:
-Is a robot a person? Can they declare themselves a person? Do they have thoughts and feelings, emotions and desires?
-The dangers of technological dependence
-The pervasiveness of technology in everyday life
-How technology gets in the way of or improves personal relationships
Example: “A.I.” (film)
Person vs. Faith/Religion/The God(s)
This is a story about someone struggling with their own personal belief, religion, and faith. In these stories, God(s) may or may not actually be real, but the focus is on the self and the spark of one’s own connection to the divine.
May focus on topics/issues around:
-Loss of faith
-Discovering and confronting hypocrisy in one’s religion or one’s family/friends
-The juxtaposition of personal desires with community rules
-Leaving or entering a religion
Example: “Abide With me” by Elizabeth Strout
Person vs. Person
This is a story about someone struggling in direct opposition of someone else, with conflicting aims and desires.
May focus on topics/issues around:
-competitions (sports, games, arts, etc.)
-heroes and villains
Example: “Face/Off” (Film)
Person vs. Society / Institution
This is a story about someone struggling with their place in society, what that society expects of them, and their sense of self and worth as dictated by that society.
May focus on topics/issues around:
-expectations and hegemony (example: The Dead Poet’s Society)
-bad/wrong social structure
-Rights and Privileges (declaring who is ‘human’ and a ‘person’ under the law)
-Wanting the wrong/right thing according to outside forces
Example: “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
Person vs. Nature
This is a story about someone struggling with surviving or overcoming a natural disaster, a hostile environment, abandonment/self-isolation in a hostile natural setting, or finding ways to adapt to/work with an unfamiliar natural setting.
Example: “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George
Person vs. Machine/Technology
This is a story about someone struggling with technology that is pervasive and may be a direct threat or aide to their desires.
May focus on topics/issues around:
-Technology as a direct physical threat to health, happiness or life
-Using technology to help you get what you want
-Technology as a shortcut or cheat
Example: “The Terminator” (film)
Person vs. The Supernatural
This is a story about someone directly, and usually physically struggling with supernatural entities and forces.
May focus on topics/issues around:
-Faith and belief
-Self worth and self sacrifice
-the personhood of an Othered being
-Life after death
Example: “Supernatural” (TV Show)
Person vs. Fate/Destiny/The Gods
This is a story about someone struggling with or dealing with physical, emotional, or mental threats from real entitles that are considered gods, or the direct manifestation of some outside force that controls the course of their life.
May focus on topics/issues around:
-supernatural intervention/deus ex machina (both for the protagonist’s good, and/or against the protagonist)
-faith and religion when the people you worship are real
-enslavement or forced obedience
While I’ve spoken at length on how to get an agent, something I haven’t discussed is how to leave one when your relationship isn’t working out any more.
I’m not talking about ragequitting because you got told off for bad behavior, or because your book isn’t selling, or because you weren’t an instant and critical success. I’m talking about having a big, long, honest think about whether your relationship with your current agent is still a good one that’s serving your books and your career, and deciding that no, this agent is not longer (or never was) a good fit.
I’ve had two agents in my decade-long writing career, and last month, I just parted ways from my second one.
It’s a scary thing to do, because (at least in my case) it made me feel like a failure as a writer.
I have to keep reminding myself that walking away from a relationship that’s not working isn’t failure — it’s selfcare.
The truth is, in a way it’s you who is employing the agent. It’s not the other way around, even if you have to query them to take you on as a client. It’s a percentage derived from your royalties -therefore your work – that they pay their bills with. So they should be serving your career and your work.
(I mean, but not in a subservient way. Obviously, you signed with them because you trust their advice and guidance, which you should always discuss if you disagree with. It’s still a professional relationship; you’re not the boss of your agent any more than they’re the boss of you.)
And if your agent isn’t serving you or your work, then they’re getting in the way of it.
It’s as simple as that.
So where did I go wrong?
After the unexpected success of “Triptych”, which I published with a small press with no agent, I sent around my second book to a few agents on the hope that someone would want me now. My first agent was one of three that I had phone calls with, but the only one who made an unconditional offer. He wanted me immediately, and he wanted to sign me right away, so I said “yes” right away instead of thinking it over and digging a little deeper into his communication style, his aspirations for my career, or what his other clients had to say about him.
Because I wanted an agent so bad. I thought it would make my career. And no one had told me “It’s better to have no agent than the wrong one.”
There were a few warning bells going off in my head when I signed with him, but I ignored them, because AGENT! That made me a real writer, right?
We were together for… I think about a year? Maybe a bit more? And it was… not good. I didn’t like how he spoke to me. I didn’t like where he tried to get me to steer my book in rewrites (it was a mess). I sent him a different book and he dismissed it as “victorian romance trash” when it was neither Victorian, Romance, nor Trash. When I was being emotionally traumatized, and viciously and violently harassed by horrible stalker, he shrugged it off and sent me this:
Like, WTF man. When your client tells you she’s scared and she’s being harassed, and threatened with real violence, you listen and you do something about it.
I eventually found out that he never even read “Triptych”, even though he kept saying “why can’t you just write me another book like Triptych?” I kept pitching him books like “Triptych” and he kept brushing them aside because they weren’t like what he thought “Triptych” was, not what it actually was, It was so frustrating that I would jam my face into a pillow and scream.
He even failed to show up to be my plus one when “Triptych” was nominated for a major award – I flew to NYC (in a thunderstorm I may add!) to walk this red carpet, and he couldn’t even bother to take the half hour train ride to the venue.
The only time I ever met him in real life was for a brunch while I was down for the awards, and it was like the worst first date in the history of terrible romcoms. If I could have, I would have been texting my BFF under the table to rush into the resto and announce that my mother was in a coma or something just so I could escape. He looked me in the eyes and said what more or less amounted to: “Shut up, little girl, and write what I tell you.”
The minute I left the restaurant, I burst into tears.
I knew I had made a mistake in signing with him, and I knew that I was going to have to fire him in order to have the career I wanted, and to be able to write the books I wanted. And that was scary, because I was worried that I would never get an agent again. I felt like I’d screwed up everything by making the wrong choice. It felt like I was giving up on my dreams.
I see now that what I was really doing was taking steps to help those dreams thrive. But I’m not gonna lie, I cried for days after that weekend.
Clearly I had not learned my lesson, because I promptly made the same mistake a second time. Like…
Still sobbing, I went to the Javits Centre for BookExpo. Hovering miserably beside the editor for “Triptych” while she schmoozed, a woman I’d never met before offered me a tissue. We spoke a little, and I learned that by luck, she was one of the three agents I had spoken to on the phone previous to selecting Agent #1. She was very nice, and very consoling, and listened attentively while I poured out my story, and my worries, and my snot.
A week or so later, when she nabbed my number from my editor called me to tell me that she’d love to rep me after I’d made the clean break from Agent #1, it seemed like a no-brainer.
So once again, I said “yes” to the first person who offered instead of taking a step back and really thinking about whether we would be a good fit.
I didn’t compare the kinds of books I wanted to write to the kind of books she had a past record placing well. We didn’t have as thorough a conversation about my career and what future books would be as I would have liked, and I now realize I should have had. I didn’t bother to find out whether she ‘got’ what it is that I do.
(I know that, now, in the world of Twitter and Instagram, blogs, websites and #MSWL and #pitchmad and all these amazing way to connect with agents on social media, it seems crazy that I could not realize that these agents weren’t for me, really, but you have to understand that I started looking for agents fifteen years ago, when the only real way to figure out who agents were was to read Publishers Weekly, Publishers Marketplace, and get the big old directory of agent’s addresses, genre specialties, and submission preferences from the bookstore once a year. When I started querying, you had to send in paper copies of the book through the mail.)
Regretfully, after working with Agent #2 for seven years, I’ve learned that I don’t actually write what she thinks I write, and I don’t know how to write what she knows how to sell. My works err more on the side of Literary Magic Realism, which is not at all the far more mainstream spaceships-and-lasers scifi and wizards-and-swords fantasy that she’s very good at selling.
Agent #2 didn’t ever seem to quite “get” what my books were, and therefore (at least to my mind) was framing them as something they were not as she was shopping them to editors and publishing houses. And thus submitting them to the wrong people in the wrong places. Which always leads to rejections. How could it not?
That she sold “The Accidental Turn Series” and “The Skylark’s Saga” at all are down to the acquiring editor hearing Agent #2 talk about “The Untold Tale” in a keynote speech and approach her. The publisher sought out my agent and said “I want those”. And while I’m happy with the end result of working with that indie press, especially with how my editor there made the books leaps and bounds better, it felt like a let down to still be publishing with small indies after my debut novel wracked up so much critical acclaim.
After that, Agent #2 read (or, I assumed she read) and declined to represent two other books I’d written, immediately. Another book, she half-heatedly shopped and then pulled it back and shelved it after about half a year. She waved away even more ideas I pitched to her for development, or suggested major changes to the ideas I brought to her that I thought were not at all in the spirit of the books or my oeuvre. At that point, it was clear that we were not sympatico, and likely never had been.
waited until I had finished out my contracts with the indie publisher for “Accidental Turn” and “Skylark”, and for some personal life stuff to get sorted, and then parted ways with Agent #2 last month.
While I was very upset, and very angry at myself that I had to leave an agent a second time, I was very happy (dare I say, relieved) that I had finally done it. I had known I needed to leave Agent #2 for, gosh, years.
Part of what held me back was I didn’t want to endanger my six-book contract with the indie press.
But a lot of it was also my fear that if I left this agent, I would never get another. That I had screwed up again. That I was a failure. Again.
But you have to – I have to – remember:
No agent is better than the wrong agent.
An agent who isn’t advancing your career is standing in the way of it.
So how do you leave an agent?
It’s not difficult at all to split with an agent, no matter how nerve-wracking and heartbreaking it is. There’s no real trouble to it because all good and legitimate agents will have a “time to part ways”/”sunset” clause in the original contract you sign with them. (It’s a red flag if they don’t!)
So the first thing you want to do is read that clause very carefully, and follow the steps outlined in it.
In my case(s), I a polite email stating that I wanted to invoke that clause, and end our relationship. I laid out the reasons why, and luckily, Agent #2 agreed. (Agent #1 was more of a sulky pill about it, but that’s part of the reason I left. His professionalism left a lot to be desired). Then I sent a certified letter in the mail stating the same this I said in the email, for legal purposes.
And that’s it. That’s all it took.
(Why had I agonized over this for literal years? You know why.)
In both cases, the agents just emailed back something that more or less amounted to” “Okay, yup, got it.” Because I believe both of them knew that it wasn’t working any more, too.
Agent #2 mentioned that she’d been sorta feeling like it was time for us to split anyway, so it was good to know that we were at least on the same page about that one thing, if not much else. And there’s no hard feelings between us, as far as I’m aware.
When I left the first agent I asked for a list of everyone he’d submitted my books to, so I knew who’d already rejected them when it came time to shop it around again. My second agent had already provided that on my request for the book we’d shopped years ago when we pulled it, so I didn’t need to ask her for that. It’s always a good thing to have – a list of everyone who’s already seen which books and why they said no.
Nothing stayed with Agent #1, as he had placed nothing. The books that Agent #2 placed will continue to be managed by her – and she’ll still get her cut of my royalties from those books, because she is still working for those books – but she has no claims to anything I write and/or profit from in the future.
And now that I am agent-less, the whole process starts all over for me again.
I have to write a totally new book, polish it, and query it around, just like anyone else.
I have the advantage of being able to claim nine published novels and a handful of nice awards to my name at this point, though. And I author friends whose agents I am familiar with through them, so I can decide more easily if I want to query them, or perhaps even arrange to have a chat with them before hand, if their amenable. Hopefully that makes this process a bit less entrenched and nerve-wracking.
And I’m a far more mature storyteller now too – I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t sign with an agent until I know we really click.
And of course, now-a-days there’s that robust and useful social media culture around publishing as well, which will give me the chance to scope out the people I want to query.
Do I think I’m going to get another agent? I’m hopeful. But I’m trying not to get too hopeful. I do so much want to be a career writer, and it’s been nine years since my debut, so I’m hoping maybe my next book will push me over into earning enough money to do so.
How am I feeling right now?
Some days I cry and feel like if I had just worked harder, if I had just been better, I wouldn’t have failed so badly at finding the right agent – which is silly capitalist nonsense because how can working harder have anything to do with incompatible client/agent relationships? Sometimes I beat myself up for being a two-time loser. Sometimes I decide that I’m going to quit writing once and for all, because I’m obviously not cut out for it.
But sometimes I really do believe that third time will be the charm. Sometimes, I remember that I’m not beholden to those Agents and what they think I should be writing vs. what I want to be writing, and it feels like a hundred pounds has been lifted off my chest. Sometimes I laugh about it. Sometimes I work on my New Agent Excel Sheet and dream big “overnight success after ten years of hard slog” dreams.
But most of the time, I just remind myself that I did the right thing. I took the right step, even though it was scary, because taking that step means that I’m helping my dream to thrive.
And that the wrong agent was always standing in the way of the right one — whoever that turns out to be.
Huzzah! My short story collection, HERO IS A FOUR LETTER WORD, is now available exclusively through Wattpad. The collection has been expanded to include more short stories. I’ll be uploading either one whole short-short story, or part of a longer one, each Friday.
And keep your eye on my social media, because I’ll be releasing an updated paperback version in the coming year.
About the collection:
Good and Evil. Two sides of the same coin? Or something less defined, something more liminal? Entertaining and always thought-provoking, author J.M. Frey offers a collection of remarkable short stories that explore the grey area of the hero/villain dichotomy in this debut short story collection.
Tweet from Katie Crabb: I am making sense of an idea document for a potential new project tonight, and thinking of all the research I would need to do, and all the things I would need to figure out, and it makes me think of seeing people writing drafts in like…a month and honestly?? How??? HOW.
This wasn’t a direct question to me, but I ended up writing a really long thread on Twitter in answer to Katie, which I’m going to flesh out a bit below.
The facetious and flip answer to this question is, of course, that it will take you as long to write the first draft of a book as it needs to take. The more familiar you get with your own writing style and narrative tropes, the faster that process will get, until it isn’t any more, for some reason.
And while, yes, some people “draft” a novel in a month, you also have to look at a few factors – their experience as writers, how complete that draft is, and how much space they have to write.
Let’s start with EXPERIENCE
What does it take to become an expert or master performer in a given field? The common rule of thumb, popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his bestseller “Outliers: The Story of Success”, is 10, 000 hours. While that’s not precisely true, the fact of the matter is that some practice has to go into every endeavor before you’ve got a handle on it.
And as writing is constantly evolving as you grow as an artist and a person, take comfort in the knowledge that you will never have a handle on it. Not one of us has it handled. Every book is different, and every time you sit down to write is different. You can’t perfect your writing experience, but you can make it easier by figuring out HABITS that help you streamline and speed up your process.
(This is something I love NaNoWriMo for – it forces you to write everyday, and if you’re participating in both the OL and IRL events and challenges, it helps you experience writing in a whole load of different environments, and under different stresses. It’s great for helping you find out how you hate to write, which means it will help you eventually find the way you love to.)
The first thing I want to talk about under HABITS is ENVIRONMENT. Some people love noisy coffee shops. Some people hate them. Some people can only write in their private home office. Some can write in the park on their lunch breaks. Some need a getaway at a cabin or beach to get the juices flowing. Some people need a specific playlist going, or a certain candle lit to evoke sense memory, or a certain kind of tea available. What kind of environment you need to tell stories in? How long your writing sessions need to be, and basically everything you need to actually sit down and make the words go, and at what point does that going stop?
Wherever and however it is that you need to be to really get into the flow of writing, once you find that place and build those environmental habits (and habitats), your drafting will go quicker.
Sussing out and codifying the shorthands and tropes you prefer to use are another form of HABIT, this time a CREATIVE SHORTCUT. Once you’ve figured out what sorts of story elements you like to work with best, and the kinds of themes you like to assemble, the next books will be easier because you’ve already got a catalog of your familiar and preferred tricks. This isn’t cheating or being lazy – it’s more like a soccer player focusing on a few kinds of specific goal-winning kicks to specialize in.
Lastly, the more you write, the more you’re going to figure our your own STYLE. That is, your internalized preferences in storytelling and narrative structure, the way you like to build and evolve characters, the way you like to drop information and worldbuild, etc. Once you figure how it is that you like to do these things, you’ll get faster and better at them.
The first draft of my first novel took me about two years to finish. The first draft of my second novel took about a year. My third novel took about four months.
However, take into account that people change, and the kinds of stories they want to tell also change. And then it will be a long hard slog again, as evidenced by the three novels I have currently in half-formed states. I’ve decided to change up how I structure novels, what sorts of stories I want to tell, the kind of character evolution I want to spotlight, and how some of these stories are formatted. I’m working with – and learning – new tropes and new plot maps.
And so it’s taking me… well, years, again. It’s like having to go back and relearn how to write all over again now that I’ve changed how I’m structuring my work and which creative shorthands I’m leaning on.
You’ve got to learn how to skate before you can turn out a flawless triple axle each time. And the minute you change what kind of skates you’re using you’ve got to relearn all over again. And even then, your triple Axel will never be Flawless on the first attempt. Figure skaters have jump coaches. Writers have editors.
When someone says they “drafted” their book, what do they mean? To my mind, a “drafted” book is a fully complete, totally written version of the manuscript. It is, essentially, a whole book that any reader could pick up and understand. (Though, as a first draft, it might not be good.)
But to other folks, they may mean they just set up a document, figured out the number of chapters they’re aiming for, and went into each chapter and wrote a detailed one-page outline of everything that happens in that chapter, mapping the character growth. To yet someone else, it could be an intricate system of cue cards pinned to a wall whereon they’ve figured out each and every minute detail of the worldbuild and laid out the plot.
So having a completely drafted novel in a month could mean something totally different to different people. Don’t compare yourself if your notion of “drafted” means something different.
I also want to be clear that when people are talking about the time it takes to draft also depends on your ‘availability’. What do I mean by that?
Well, let’s have a think about J.R.R. Tolkien who took several years to draft LotR (but it was big): Tolkien was a professor with tenure, so he had stability and job security. It’s well known that he deliberately poorly-taught and sabotaged his own courses so students would drop out so he had time to sit in his office and write. So he had SPACE available – both physically, in having a private office that was away from home, and the time, because he used the hours he should have been teaching to write, as well as the hours around when he actually was teaching.
His home was managed by his wife, whose only job was to stay there and plans meals and events, oversee the staff, the nannies and governesses, and the household. So he was free of the EMOTIONAL LABOUR of participating in his own domestic life and raising his own children. He told them bedtime stories, but I don’t know how much else he was involved in raising them.
People call Tolkien a genius – and he was – but when you envision the grand fantasy master sitting under a tree, smoking a pipe and scribbling in his notebook, remember that he has the privilege to be doing that because many, many other people are making his life go.
Tolkien was MENTALLY, EMOTIONALLY, FINANCIALLY, and SPATIALLY ‘available’. And he was healthy enough to sit for long periods of time to do the actual physical work of writing (which I personally have not always been, so I understand that as a privilege too).
So when you’re worried that other people are drafting their novels faster than you, consider what kind of SPACE you both have available. Do you have kids, and they don’t? Is writing their full time job, while you have to work 40hrs a week? Are you suffering from Covid Concentration Crud (I know I am!) while they’re finding the lockdown time inspiring and freeing? Do they have a spouse to help with childcare, or domestic and emotional labour?
when I say my first novel took me two years to write, and several more to edit, this is true. But I was also working, cooking for myself, cleaning, commuting, and trying to have a social life.
When I started “Triptych” I was at work 50hrs a week in a high-academic school in Japan, with a 20min commute both ways. I lived alone in a place with little English, did all my own cooking and cleaning, and had to do all my own grading and lesson planning (and unlike Tolkien, I actually taught my lessons.)
In the middle of writing the book, I applied to five grad schools, studied for and wrote the GRE, got hit by a car and was laid up for six weeks with a broken knee (a large chunk of the book was written with the laptop on my stomach, high off my face on Japanese painkillers), did all my physio and had a once-a-week visit to the hospital, moved back to Canada, found an apartment, attended classes, moved apartments again, had knee surgery and all the attendant physio, did my course work, worked 20-40 hours a week at McD’s, recorded a new voice demo and did some freelance voice acting, volunteered for a medical trial, wrote my MA thesis, got an agent and did auditions, was a TA for one course with piles of marking, and still did all my own cooking, shopping, and cleaning.
I started thinking about the book in 2006, and started seriously writing it after the car accident. It was published in 2011.
I learned a lot about myself as a writer in that time. It was the second book I’d written (the first was while I was in undergrad and is buried under a tree forever), and it was already leaps and bounds better than the first. I learned the optimal conditions for me to be productive as a writer in that time.
Over the course of my second book, I was living in one place, with a steady full time job that paid enough that I required no side-hustling, I was walking again so I could cook and clean for myself, and I had an established friend group with established weekly plans, and I wasn’t dating. So I had lots of time to write, and moreover to work on my habits.
Now that I had practice, I could optimize my time, my mental processes and storytelling choices, and environment to make the writing go better, faster, and smoother. I had developed HABITS and figured out my needed SPACE.
Draft one of that next book took about a year to write. After that, each book took a little less time, maybe a month or two less.
Over the course of the next few years, I still worked, still switched jobs, still switched apartments, still lived alone, still handled all of my own domestic and emotional labour.
AND THEN. I had a really bad accident and had to move back in with my parents while I healed, saw doctors, and did physio to get back on my feet. Suddenly I was free of domestic labour, of a job, and some of my emotional labour as well, as my parents took over.
At first I couldn’t sit or stand for a long time to write, but as I got healthier, I had the PRIVILEGE of being able to just stay at a computer and write for hours and hours each day (as long as my body didn’t rebel). I wrote the first draft of a 400 page book in four months.
Now, to be totally fair, this was my 8th or 9th novel, so at this point I had the whole ‘Optimum Environment’ thing down. And it was a sequel, so I’d already done all the hard work of coming up with characters, settings, plot structures and narrative choices, etc. But the fact remains that I would never have been able to do that if I didn’t have someone else to share the domestic load, the freedom from needing a dayjob, the safety and security of living at my parent’s house, etc. That is, the AVAILABILITY.
All of this to say: don’t get down on yourself if it takes you longer than other people to write the first draft of your book. We all have different AVAILABILITY situations, and it takes practice to figure out your own OPTIMAL SITUATION and STORYTELLING HABITS to write.
In the end, comparison is the silent killer in a creative space. Each artist, no matter their discipline, has their own way of doing things, habits and methods and tricks they’ve figured out.
Da Vinci didn’t sketch, or plan, or mix paints the same way Rembrandt did, but they both produced masterpieces. So work to your own pace, in your own space, and you’ll be just fine.